sunnuntai 15. toukokuuta 2016

Diving to the depths - how to pick the right dive shop

That dive was a turning point.

I was pursuing my personal best and dove down to 40 meters in the freediving mecca of Finland, the Kinisselkä in Asikkala. While making my way back to surface I remember thinking that it was one goddamn long way up there. I remember how my field of vision started wobbling and narrowing. I remember an euphoric feeling and a calm, pleasant dream.

I had blacked out underwater,
few meters below the surface. 

Safety diver had brought me back to the surface. I woke up back to this reality while floating on my back on  a calm surface of the lake, gazing to the blue sky upon me. My safety diver was talking to me calmly and told we're back to surface and it's ok to breathe again.

I understood that my whole approach to freediving had been wrong and needed to be fixed.

Back to the paradise island

Two years later I was living my dream and deepening my knowledge about freediving. I was doing a four week long Freediving Master Program in the tropical waters of Indonesia. I was about to dive deeper to the philosophy of freediving. Assistant instructor certificate was an added bonus.

I had got excellent training in Finland but somewhere in the back of my mind I had a thought that at some point I'd like to throw myself into the sport and live and breathe freediving. I wasn't expecting that to happen anytime soon, though - after all, we had just returned from our one year long round the world trip and starting to get back to normal life. However, the puzzle pieces of my professional life started falling into place in a way that I found myself sending emails to freediving centers around the world.

It didn't take too long to find the winner. On our round the world trip we had felt in love with Gili Air in Indonesia, and in less than a year since our last visit the freediving business was booming on the island. I was exchanging emails with Oli, the founder and owner of Freedive Flow and before I realized, the mailman had delivered me flight tickets to Bali in my inbox.

Within two weeks
I was sitting in a plane.

There are differences between dive shops

During the last twenty years or so I've been diving with dozens of dive operators around the world. Based on those experiences I've created a set of criteria for picking "the right" ones. Things I've learned about safety as a mine hunting diver in Finnish Navy have followed me everywhere and in my mindset the safety under water is the most important thing.

Especially in Asia there might be heaps of dive operators in small area and unfortunately not all of those concentrate on safety, environmental issues and sustainable development as strongly as one might wish they would. Best way to learn how things are done is by walking to the shop and having a chat with instructors or dive masters about their philosophies and policies and having a look at rental gear and boat.

Those tips apply also to freediving, although you might want to add extra caution when someone advertises "From zero to hero" type of training and promises to take you to depths beyond your wildest dreams. A freediving instructor who knows their game can promise to do their best to get the best out of you and offer you valuable knowledge and tips while mentoring and coaching you towards better results.

There is no need to talk about meters. They are not important.

Going with the (Freedive) Flow

While talking to Oli I was convinced about Freedive Flow's philosophy and knowledge and felt comfortable even before leaving home. I paid extra attention to following points:
  • Oli is the main author of freediving course materials of AIDA, world's biggest freediving organization. In other words, there wouldn't be a shortage of knowledge.
  • The dive center has a 25 meter pool and brand new boat.
  • There are always minimum of two instructors present.
  • I got a clear list of my responsibilities vs. Freedive Flow's responsibilities.
  • The answers to my questions even about the most minor details were always delivered in a professional yet friendly manner.
  • No empty promises but a little pressure on what was expected from my side.
  • Gili Air!

I also asked about courses on other freediving centers around the world but turned them down because of vague answers, bad weather on that specific side of the world or questionable security situation in the area.

A safe sport when done right

I'm sitting in shade hiding from the midday tropical sun with my instructor Yoshua when an alarmed woman runs to dive shop. His boyfriend has been diving with another freediving operator and blacked out after surfacing. He seems fine but the dive shop didn't have an oximeter - a device that measures your oxygen level and can be used on initial diagnosis on lung problems.His girlfriend has been running around the island trying to find an oximeter, and Yosh leaves with hew with one of his own.

After a while Yosh returns, shaking his head. The diver had been taken too deep without proper surface time between the dives.

There are differences between the dive operators and especially between the divers. Even though freediving is a safe sport when done correctly, blacking out is always a sign that something wasn't done properly - either there is a lack of experience or training, or the diver has overestimated his own abilities or failed to listen to himself. Ignoring safety procedures and taking reckless risks can be fatal.

Every procedure with Freedive Flow was carried out following the safety first principle and personal limits were approached only after the diver was thoroughly prepared and under excellent level of supervision.

If there is something to remember from this post, be it selecting the dive operator that takes pride in safety issues and the most important rule for freediving: Always dive with a buddy.

When I blacked out while diving in Finland, I was pushing myself too much while pursuing my personal best. I had an incorrect mindset. Even though the people outside the sport are primarily interested about meters and minutes, they are not important at all. Relaxed feeling and safe environment should always come first.

Luckily I have always respected the ocean and everything except my overly competitive attitude was in place - the safety issues were taken care of and my safety diver brought me back to surface when I ran out of strength. When dive operator is picked carefully and training and mindset are in place the risk of own errors turning into fateful accidents can be minimized.

Top 5 tips for picking the right dive operator
  1. Make sure the personnel's game is up to par and they know the dive sites and respect the environment.
  2. Check that equipment is up to date and well maintained - they don't look worn out and there are no extra sounds while testing them.
  3. Ask some questions to make sure their philosophy matches yours.
  4. Ask what you can expect from the dives.
  5. Ask client's feelings and opinions. Google experiences and pay extra attention to safety issues and personnel's attitude.

In the future I'll write experiences about the Freediving Master Program itself, such as an unexpected encounter with a sea snake.

Stay tuned!

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